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Eagles on East Lake land create dilemma for Morton Plant Mease Foundation

Two bald eagles take care of their two young in a nest in the Grey Oaks neighborhood in East Lake.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2010)

Two bald eagles take care of their two young in a nest in the Grey Oaks neighborhood in East Lake.

EAST LAKE — The eagle has landed on a parcel of land here owned by the Morton Plant Mease Foundation, and the hospital foundation doesn't know what to do about it.

Bald eagles have nested on the 9 acres for at least 18 years, making it illegal to build anything there. And so far, the hospital hasn't been able to sell the land either.

Developer Roy E. Shaffer Jr. donated the parcel of land in the Grey Oaks subdivision to the foundation before his death in 2006. A longtime benefactor of Morton Plant, Shaffer has two hospital buildings named after him.

His wife, Joni Shaffer, said her husband loved watching the eagles in Grey Oaks and wanted the land to be a sanctuary for them. They even nicknamed the eagles "Roy" and "Royola," she said.

"We would drive out there and watch them from day one until they had little babies," Shaffer said. "We considered them our children."

Shaffer said her husband never told her what Morton Plant Mease should do with the land. She said it is up to Morton Plant to decide.

The hospital foundation has been working to sell the land but hasn't had any takers. Beth Hardy, spokeswoman for the foundation, said it would go against Shaffer's wishes for the foundation to just donate the land and not gain any proceeds.

"Mr. Shaffer's wish was that land would be preserved and the proceeds used to benefit the hospital," Hardy said.

She didn't know what the foundation would do with the land if it couldn't be sold.

The parcel has development rights for 16 single-family homes, but the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission prohibits anyone from developing the land while bald eagles nest there, Morton Plant's broker, Bill Sweetnam, said.

Even if the eagles vacated the nest, developers would have to wait five years to build.

"That assumes both bald eagles packed their bags and left tomorrow," Sweetnam said. "Very few businessmen would willingly take the risk to purchase under those conditions."

Morton Plant aims to sell the land to someone who will develop it as a nature preserve, Sweetnam said.

In July, Sweetnam contacted the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Florida Nature Conservancy, Audubon of Florida, the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Pinellas County, which owns the nearby Brooker Creek Preserve. But no one would pay the asking price of $405,000.

Paul Sacco, director of real estate management for Pinellas County, said the county is still considering the land for purchase, but he does not believe it is interested in paying $405,000.

Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida, said the society would like to preserve the land but does not have the funds to buy it.

"Audubon has a number of sanctuary properties similar to this all over Florida, but they have been donated to us by individuals who wanted to preserve the land," Lee said.

Often, individuals will donate land to Audubon because they can receive tax deductions in return, Lee said. As a tax-exempt organization, Morton Plant cannot benefit in this way.

Until recently, the Grey Oaks land might have been eligible for Florida Forever, a state land purchasing program that acquired 2.4 million acres of land for conservation. The program was defunded earlier his year.

"That would have been the ideal program to secure an acquisition like this," he said. "With the cutbacks in Tallahassee, state money for land acquisition is just not there right now."

While no organization has offered to buy the land, eagles find it prime territory. In the past nesting season, a pair of eagles won the land in a fight with the family of eagles that had nested there for years, local eagle watcher Barb Walker said.

"That is a very nice territory because it does have a good amount of pine trees, which are good to fledge in," Walker said. "It's a short distance from the Anclote River and Salt Lake, which is a food supply."

Walker said she would love for the land to be incorporated into the Brooker Creek Preserve but said she's "probably dreaming."

"If only I had $400,000," Walker said. "In fact, I think an eagle's nest is worth a lot more than $400,000."

Katie Park can be reached at (727) 445-4154 or kpark@sptimes.com.

Eagles on East Lake land create dilemma for Morton Plant Mease Foundation 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 8:06pm]
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